Moderation is great, in moderation

Having been a language major and having always been interested in the ways that we humans communicate with each other makes for days when I really hone in on particular words or phrases that have become parts of common every-day speech and want to analyze the how and why of their use.  The word that has caught my attention most recently is “moderation”; especially when used in reference to eating or exercise or health advice via the phrase “in moderation”.  So I would like to take a moment to explore the actual meaning of moderation and try to understand the use of the phrase “in moderation” so abundantly in every-day dieting rhetoric.

mod·er·a·tion       [mod-uhrey-shuhn] Pronunciation KeyShow IPA Pronunciation
1. the quality of being moderate; restraint; avoidance of extremes or excesses; temperance.
2. the act of moderating.
3. moderations, British. the first public examinations at Oxford University for the B.A. degree in mathematics or in classics.

4. in moderation, without excess; moderately; temperately: to drink in moderation.
[Origin: 1375–1425; late ME moderacion < L moderātiōn- (s. of moderātiō). See moderate, -ion]

mod·er·ate       (mŏd’ər-ĭt)  Pronunciation Key 
  1. Being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme: a moderate price.
  2. Not violent or subject to extremes; mild or calm; temperate: a moderate climate.
    1. Of medium or average quantity or extent.
    2. Of limited or average quality; mediocre.
  3. Opposed to radical or extreme views or measures, especially in politics or religion.

(Emphasis in Bold Italics are mine)

From a purely book-definition view, moderation is not an extreme.  Like Baby Bear’s porridge is it neither too hot nor too cold; it is perfect, the middle-ground average amount, with no excess in either direction (too much or too little).  Moderation is “just enough”. 

We see the word “moderation” often, especially in reference to diets in the form of the phrase “in moderation”.  A quick Google search of the phrase will show a propensity towards the phrase’s use in reference to food and drink; particularly when the topic is “bad foods” and alcohol.

Health: Chocolate – in Moderation – May Lower Blood Pressure

Alcohol – An Ancient Medicine (Enjoy in Moderation)

Red Wine, Taken in Moderation, Reduces Risk of Prostate Cancer

New Ads Say Corn Syrup’s OK in Moderation

Why Fast Foods are Bad, even in Moderation

The list goes on and on.  Hit after hit exposing the need to control, to moderate, our intake of particular foods or drinks.  What really strikes me and makes me question the rampant use of the phrase is just how very ambiguous it is.  HOW MUCH is “just enough”?  Do you know when you’ve passed the limits of moderation only when you’ve PASSED them and never before?  Moderation is not supposed to be EITHER extreme so it isn’t the same as “none” and it isn’t “all”.  It is somewhere in-between 0 and infinity.  Yet if you look at most articles, advice, etc claiming for “moderate” consumption of some item, the actual AMOUNT that would be seen as “moderate” is very evidently lacking.  How do we determine “moderate amounts”?  Is it just “less than that fatty obviously ate”??

The only place you can find an actual amount is if you read up on the alcohol study done that seemed to link 4-7 glasses of red wine a week with some health benefit (though there isn’t a mention of how LARGE that glass should be).  In reference to foods you will usually NOT find an amount listed; just the modifier “in moderation”.  Is this because “in moderation” varies from person to person?  Is it that no one really KNOWS what the actual amount is?  It is just another way to set up an ambiguous bit of advice that you can accuse a fatty of abusing when it turns out that even by being “moderate” in all areas of their eating there is no magical sustained weight loss? 

If you are baking cookies and need to know how much flour to use to make it come out right you check the recipe and see “2 cups” or some sort of definitive measurement.  If you were to look and see that the recipe just listed “Some” then how much would you use?  If you didn’t grow up making the recipe all your life and didn’t KNOW how much it was in the same innate way that perhaps your grandmother might know after baking the recipe for decades, how would you find OUT?  Trial and error?  Countless batches of bad little cookies pile up while you try to figure out just what the recipe means by “some”.  Using the phrase “in moderation” in regards to how much of a particular item you should or shouldn’t consume is just as useless.  You don’t see a spoon or cup marked “moderate amount” along with the measuring cups and spoons in the kitchen.  It isn’t there for a reason:  It isn’t a definable amount. 

How is it useful to say that something is good (or bad) “in moderation”?  I find that it is being used in this manner as just another tool for those fat-fearing folks to use against anyone who isn’t naturally thin.  It is a phrase that is thrown out as an admonition against any fatty: “Well if you’re fat then it is OBVIOUS that you must not be eating/drinking these “bad” foods/drinks “in moderation”; you must be doing it to Excess!”  There is no acknowledgement that “in moderation” is not really an amount set in stone, that no limits are given for “a reasonable limit”. 

Yet, despite the reality that “in moderation” is not a set or defined range or point; there is still the perception that there are only 3 ways that people consume: Not at all, in Moderation, or to Excess.  So if you didn’t somehow magically FEEL that internal cue (you know, the internal cues of hunger or thirst that we are always told to ignore or distract ourselves from) that you reached the “in moderation” limit; you have passed beyond into excess and are BAD!  If you are fat then it is OBVIOUS that everything must be in excess and not the correct amount to be considered “moderate”; no matter what you say.  We spend our lives walking this tight-rope of moderation to avoid falling into either extreme of excess or not enough; without actually KNOWING how thick that rope is.  How does this make sense?  Why do people so easily read “in moderation” and nod along knowingly as if that phrase had any actual significance beyond the very subjective meaning of “some” that it actually has?


12 thoughts on “Moderation is great, in moderation

  1. I believe the idea of moderation began with Aristotle and from Greek philosophy made its way into Roman Medicine with the doctor Celsus in the first Century a.d.

  2. I was actually thinking about this a lot this morning – I’m really glad you posted it. Because exactly. “In moderation” is a club that is used to make us feel guilty. It grants half-way permission.

    And I don’t need anyone’s permission.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I probably would have stumbled along indefinitely believing in this “moderation” superstition — because that’s what it is, really, a superstition. Like “we have to sacrifice just the RIGHT number of people before we can get it to rain,” or “I have to pray just the RIGHT way before god will listen to me.”

  4. Cyn I hadn’t thought of it in the context of a superstition but the phrase does seem to have a sort of miraculous quality of “you’ll never REALLY be sure that you’ve hit ‘moderation'”

    Rotund – I agree. Saying that “Everything is okay, ‘in moderation'” is even more frustrating than when people will say “No, just don’t eat __fill in the blank__” outright because it is a deviously tricky little non-measurement amount; you can ALWAYS be wrong!

  5. Yikes. I said this to someone just this morning who told me she wanted to lose 20 pounds . . . This side of it never even occurred to me. Great, thoughtful post, as always.

  6. It also opens up the door even wider for people to claim that, well, fatties just don’t know how much they are actually eating. You know, we might THINK we are eating something in moderation but REALLY if we were really only eating it in moderation, we’d be thin.

    That’s another reason I am so big on Intuitive Eating. Eat what your body wants, when it wants it without making food and health into a moral issue with goods and bads.

  7. TR – “It also opens up the door even wider for people to claim that, well, fatties just don’t know how much they are actually eating. You know, we might THINK we are eating something in moderation but REALLY if we were really only eating it in moderation, we’d be thin.”

    – Exactly. Fatties, by nature, are incapable of moderation, to the common perception – which is a large part, I think, of where the disbelief of medical professionals, et al., comes from when a fat person comes in with a medical condition – the fat person is, of course, wrong, unfamiliar with his or her body, deluded, ignoring obvious things, and lying to the doctor and possibly him/herself to boot.

  8. Pingback: How do you respond to “I ate WAAAAY too much”? « I AM in shape. ROUND is a shape.

  9. Pingback: Morbidly Obese « I AM in shape. ROUND is a shape.

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